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LHMP: Orpheus in the (Sexual) Underworld

Monday, April 10, 2017 - 07:00

I've had several long-weekend events lately that have interfered with getting blogs up, but in this case it gave me enough slack time to get the rest of Mill's book written up. There are three more chapters in the can after this one, although some of them are rather thin and I may accelerate the posting schedule if I get more material written up to follow.

I love how Mills brings together a number of themes regarding the connections that can and cannot be made between modern understandings of gender and sexuality and historical ones. As with many sociological fields, there's too much of a temptation to believe we make regular linear progress in our understanding of gender and sexuality. That the understanding-of-the-moment is inherently "better" somehow than all previous understandings. Much harder to accept--even when it's part of the theoretical underpinnings--that all understandings are subjective and both enabled and constrained by the models and stories available to us.

A search for clear mappings and connections in history may feel validating, but it can erase the lived experience of people in the past, whose understanding of their own lives should be respected--even if that understanding includes what we consider a false belief in the sinfulness of their actions. Who are we to decide that historic person X was "really a closted homosexual" if their worldview didn't include such concepts? But I always feel deeply uncomfortable with the "strong Foucaultian" position that there are no conceptual connections between modern people's understanding of their genders and sexualities and those of people in history. And I'm especially uncomfortable with the way the Foucaultian position feels like it targets non-normative genders and sexualities exclusively. One may pay lip service to "well, after all, heterosexuality is a modern invention too" but the consequences of such an acknowledgement (and its potential to affect modern people's lives and self-images) are much smaller.

I'm comforted by seeing historians like Mills find a messier, more nuanced path through the tangle.

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Full citation: 

Mills, Robert. 2015. Seeing Sodomy in the Middle Ages. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago. ISBN 978-0-226-16912-5

Publication summary: 

This is an in-depth study of the visual cues and visual representations of the concept of “sodomy” in medieval manuscripts and art, using the definition of that concept at the time, not the more specific modern sense. Mills looks at how gender and sexuality interact and challenges the perception that there was no coherent framework for understanding gender and sexual dissidence in the middle ages. The topics covered include images associated with the label “sodomite”, gender transformations and sex changes (especially in Ovid), and sexual relations in closed communities (such as religious houses). The analysis includes a consideration of the relevance of modern categories to the study of medieval culture.

Chapter 3 The First Sodomite

Several chapters in this book focus, such as this one, fairly exclusively on male-related topics. I haven't summarized them in nearly as much detail as the ones relevant to women.

Another story appearing in the “moralized Ovid” manuscripts is that of Orpheus. Orpheus is relevant to the topic of the book via a version of the story in which, after losing Eurydice, he turns away from women to love boys. [As a brief summary for those not familiar with Orpheus: after his girlfriend Eurydice dies, he goes down to the underworld to plead for her return and his singing is so sweet and powerful that Hades agrees, provided he leads her out of the underworld without looking back at her. Just as they’re about to emerge into the mortal world, he looks back and she is lost to him forever. Later he takes up with maenads--rampaging wild women--who eventually tear him to pieces.]

Medieval imagery of Orpheus with his lyre (or harp) was often confused and conflated him with David (also symbolized with a harp) and with Christ. In the moralized Ovid, Orpheus’s turning away from women is equated with turning away from sin. Peculiarly enough, this means that his love of boys maps to a love of God, hence the imagery lacks some of the expected negative framing. But there are other symbolic resonances that led to viewing Orpheus as a sodomite. Music and poetry could be considered “unmanly” activities, and Orpheus’s ability to tame wild beasts was considered “against nature.”

The act of turning back (to look at Eurydice) is sometimes connected with Lot’s wife turning back to look at Sodom (leading to her conversion to a pillar of salt).  Symbolically this turning/looking back is considered to represent a return to an unsaved state. The next chapter looks more at this motif of “turning”.

In the mean time, the discussion of Orpheus in the illustrated moralized texts offers a lot of examples of depictions of erotic affection between men.

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